The subatomic age: Asia’s quantum computing arms race

Dzmitry Matsukevich’s laboratory is cramped and windowless, dominated by two large tables laid out with arrays of lasers, lenses, cables and black boxes arranged like some impenetrably complex board game. It is an experimentalist’s space — practical, prioritizing form over function. Plastic sheeting hangs in curtains from the ceiling; paperwork, boxes of components and rolls of electrical tape are piled on every spare surface.

Matsukevich, a principal investigator at Singapore’s Center for Quantum Technologies, is a physicist out of central casting: mop-haired, earnest, and infectiously enthusiastic about two slightly blurred gray squares on a computer monitor. The squares are trapped ions, held in near total stillness by lasers: the foundational element of a quantum computer.

“If you haven’t seen a single atom before,” Matsukevich said, “now’s your chance.”

Matsukevich has spent decades working on quantum information in academic institutions around the world. As recently as 10 years ago, the science had become moribund. Early breakthroughs had not been followed with any practical advances, and the reality of a functional quantum computer seemed a long way off.

“If you wrote on your research proposal that you are going to do quantum computing, most of the universities would just throw your application away,” Matsukevich said. “They thought it was a dead end.”

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